I’m currently a California expatriate living in Vermont, but one of the highlights of my time in San Francisco was the four years I was a member of Scary Cow, an independent film co-op founded in 2006. For a monthly membership fee, members get access to workshops, online resources, and, most crucially, regular pitch sessions where they can assemble a team of cast and crew for their short film projects. Completed films are screened in a festival, with audience votes determining which teams are awarded a budget for future projects.
Scary Cow was set up to solve two key problems of the independent filmmaking process: the flake factor, where people don’t show up on the day of shooting, and lack of access to equipment and crew. By charging a monthly fee, it takes advantage of the fact that people are more likely to show up once they’re paying. And the co-op format brings together folks with varying specialties, levels of experience, and access to equipment, enabling them to pool resources.
In my four years with the group, I worked on 13 films, and went from having no experience to trying out just about every role: actor, assistant director, best boy, director, producer, production assistant, set manager, script supervisor, writer.
Along the way, I learned a few things you should know if you want to make movies:
It won’t go smoothly
You will put meticulous work into planning. And no matter what you do, something will go wrong. I’ve been stood up by people who agreed to let us into a shooting location, had an actor get deathly ill the morning we were filming a scene, found out our perfectly scouted location was next to a noisy bus route that only ran at night, etc.. It’s all okay, though, because…
You’ll figure it out anyway
Okay, so you can’t shoot the scene you were planning on. Don’t fret! You may have to hold an emergency production meeting and hustle across town to do another scene somewhere else. Or maybe you’ll change something to make it work. Maybe it will even work better the new way! In the case of our deathly ill actor, he elected to soldier on, and since he was playing an unsavory hood, his sweaty demeanor was actually a bonus. I’d also like to say that, despite these first two points, you should have a plan. If nothing else, it will help you find something to switch to when things go wrong.
With current technology, you can achieve high quality
Film editing software is widely available. Ditto with good sound-editing and special effects programs. Cinematic-level cameras are no longer out of the question for the amateur user (see below). Forget the “student films” of yesterday, I’ve seen low budget projects as good as anything you’ll see on the big screen. You can make something great even if you don’t have a big budget.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot…
The real stickler is the equipment. You will have to find someone who owns the key pieces, pay for them yourself, or borrow. Pro-tip: There’s probably a nonprofit or community access media center near you. Make friends there! Those are great places to find people who already have equipment, and/or groups that will rent it. Other than that, for a short you may be a few hundred dollars out of pocket on food, supplies, and set pieces.
…except for your heart and soul
It shouldn’t be minimized that central production people on even a short film need to clear the decks of their life for a period of time. There will be auditions. Location scouting. Production meetings. Hours-long shoots for a few minutes of scene (I didn’t believe it either, but it really does take that long!) And then lengthy days, nights, and weeks of post-production. My ten-minute short “Ave Maria” took ten months from first production meeting to final editing. And I needed a six-month break after!
Collaboration is a joy and a pain
Maybe you’ve worked with people before? Then you know it can be tough sometimes. Filmmaking can intensify the challenges of collaboration and cooperation. I’ve been on sets where major ongoing disagreements and personality conflicts were par for the course. Even the best crew will reach a point in a ten or twelve-hour day where they get grouchy. On the flip side, though, and most of the time- it’s fun! Creative and interesting folks working to build something together is kind of like the grown-up version of kindergartners playing with giant legos.
Good light and sound people are key
Indie film-maker Robert Rodriguez has a famous bit of advice about saving money on film school and just making a movie, because you’ll learn by doing. Generally, I agree. Especially these days, you can learn most anything online, and you can fake your way around a lot. But having competent light and sound people on set is crucial. A scene that you can’t really see or hear isn’t something you can fix in post-production. So it’s best to get light and sound right from the beginning!
Editors are also key
There is a school of thought that post-production is where the film REALLY gets made. Not to disparage writers, directors, or cinematographers (heck, I’ve been several of these!), but I think this is true. Skillful film, sound, and effects editing can make up for so-so directing. And vice-versa, the best written, best directed, best shot film can fall apart in editing. You need just as strong a vision in this stage as you had when shooting. And good editors too!
Welcome to the sausage
There is truth to the saying that things seem different once you know how the sausage is made. After you’ve worked on a few films, you will be able to see that man behind the curtain the next time you watch a movie. But you’ll also appreciate certain things a lot more. These days, I find myself delighted by how a shot is framed, the way color is incorporated to set a mood, and the use of repetition and transformation in a story arc.
There is no feeling like watching your finished film
In the end, you’ll be exhausted. You may need to take a month off. Or a year. But there really is no substitute, be it in a darkened theatre or a friend’s living room, for the feeling of watching a film you worked on screen for the first time. Whether your role was big or small, you’ll say “I did that!” with a mixture of pride and wonder. And it will all have been worth it.
Chris LaMay-West believes in the power of rock music, Beat poetry, and the sanctity of Star Trek. He has appeared in Kitchen Sink and Morbid Curiosity, in various online venues including the Rumpus and Opium, and in the Mortified reading series. A California native, Chris is currently expatriated to Vermont, where he writes, works for a college, recently served as the poetry editor for Mud Season Review, and lives with his lovely bride, two cats, a dog, and several chickens. His literary exploits can be followed at: https://chrislamaywest.com/ and you can watch Ave Maria, one of the films he wrote, directed and produced for Scary Cow, at https://vimeo.com/19079220.